The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A good pandemic project for the Beethoven Year is to follow Boris Giltburg as he learns and posts all 32 piano sonatas in one year

May 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

There are a lot of ways that musicians are celebrating the Beethoven Year of 2020 – the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer (below).

One of the most interesting ways also makes for an engaging and ongoing coronavirus pandemic project.

The prize-winning Russian-Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg (below in a photo by Sasha Gusov) is learning all 32 piano sonatas in one year.

It is a formidable challenge, not only because most of the sonatas are technically and musically difficult, but also because the pianist says he has played only nine of the 32 sonatas before.

Giltburg’s videos feature not only fine playing and interpretations, but also a very readable and informative diary he writes that includes notes – also available in German on the website — about the sonatas and about what the process of learning and playing them has been like.

His approach works and makes you a vicarious participant in the major undertaking.

He posts performances of the sonatas every few weeks. He is learning and posting them in chronological order so you get a sense of the evolution. Giltburg is now up to Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1.

Here is some background about Giltburg from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Giltburg

And here is a link to more background at his personal website where you can also find information about his other recordings for Naxos (he is known for his Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev) and concerts: https://borisgiltburg.com

But the heart of the project is at Beethoven32.com where you can find the sonatas starting from the first.

The Ear likes hearing them this way.

Listening to them one at a time and reading about them seems a less overwhelming way to become familiar with what is called “The New Testament” – as compared to the Old Testament of the 48 preludes and fugues in Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

The Ear finds the playing first-rate and the sound quality excellent with great close-up videos of the keyboard and Giltberg’s playing.

Here is a link to the main website, which is easier than hunting for individual sonatas on YouTube: https://beethoven32.com

The Ear suggests starting at the bottom with Giltberg’s introduction and then working your way up one at a time, allowing time to appreciate both the music and his diary notes.

To get you started, here his introduction to the project:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeBrn_kwvfg

And below is his performance the Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1.

Let us know what you think of Giltberg as a Beethoven interpreter and what you think of his sonata project.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra uses a new website and a new brochure to announce its new Masterworks season plus other innovations

May 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

In many ways, there is much that is familiar or tried-and-true about the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) and its new Masterworks season for 2020-21.

But in other ways it seems as if the WCO is reinventing and rebranding itself – perhaps under the direction of its new CEO Joe Loehnis – as the ensemble starts a double anniversary: its 60th season of existence and its 20th year under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell (below in a photo by Alex Cruz).

As in past years, the WCO programs feature a mix of familiar composers and works with new and neglected ones. It also features both new and returning guest soloists.

Start with what’s new.

The new WCO home website – like the new brochure that has been mailed out — has been redesigned, with more visuals and more information about the 34-member orchestra. The Ear finds both the new brochure and the new home page to be more attractive, better organized and easier to use. Take a look for yourself: https://wcoconcerts.org

There also seems to be a heightened emphasis on donations and raising money, including a new organization called “Friends” that brings special benefits for $30 or even more perks at $8 a month.

And the website seems more customer-friendly. There is a section on the website about “What to Expect,” which includes how to choose seats, how to dress, when to applaud and so forth. There is also a portal for streaming events and concerts.

There is more, much more, including the pre-concert dinners for the Masterworks concerts and the culturally diverse programs for the postponed Concerts on the Square (below), to run this summer on Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. (NOT the usual Wednesdays at 7 p.m.) from July 28 to Sept. 1.

There seems to be more emphasis on Sewell, who this year provides extensive first-person notes about each program and the guest artists. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Sewell discuss the new Masterworks season with Wisconsin Public Radio host and WCO announcer Norman Gilliland.)

This season will see two performances of Handel’s “Messiah”: one on Saturday, Dec. 19, at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton; and another downtown on Sunday, Dec. 20, at the UW-Madison’s Hamel Music Center.

The Masterworks series of concerts – held on Friday nights at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – will begin in late November rather than in late January. The six concerts include five new ones and the postponed appearance of harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, whose appearance this season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, on May 14.

Two of the concerts – on two Saturdays, Feb. 20 and April 10 – will also be performed in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield at the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center for the Arts (below).

You can read more about the community outreach and music education programs, especially the Youth and Education programs. They include the free Family Series and “Side by Side” concerts (below, in a photo by Mike DeVries for The Capital Times, WCO concertmaster Suzanne Beia, right, tutors a WYSO student); the Super Strings educational program; and the Young Artists Concerto Competition for grades 9-12.

Here are the Masterworks series:

NOV. 20Pianist John O’Conor (below) returns in a program of the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” by Beethoven; the Septet by Igor Stravinsky; and the Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Luigi Cherubini.

JAN. 15Cellist Amid Peled (below, in a photo by Lisa Mazzucco) returns in a program of Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitry Kabalevsky and the Andante by Jacques Offenbach; plus the Wind Serenade in D minor by Antonin Dvorak; and the Symphony No. 34 by Mozart.

FEB. 19Violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky (below) in returns in Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires”; plus the Suite for Strings by Leos Janacek.

MARCH 19Grammy-winning Spanish guitarist Mabel Millán (below) making her U.S, debut in an all-Spanish program that features the Concierto del Sur (Concerto of the South) by Manuel Ponce; the Sinfonietta in D major by Ernesto Halffter; and the overture “Los Esclavos Felices” (The Happy Slaves) by Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga.

APRIL 9Pianist Michael Mizrahi (below), who teaches at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wis., on the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven plus the Serenade No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.

MAY 14Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis (below) in the Harp Concerto by Alberto Ginastera; plus the Sinfonietta by Sergei Prokofiev and the Symphony no. 88 by Franz Joseph Haydn.

Single tickets, which go on sale in July, are $15 to $80. Season subscriptions are available now with seat preference through July 1, bring a discounted price with an extra 10 percent off for first-time subscribers.

For more information, go to the website at https://wcoconcerts.org; call 608 257-0638; or mail a subscription form to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Attn: Subscriptions; PO Box171, Madison, WI 53701-0171.

 


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Classical music: Musical America offers an exhaustive and helpful guide to international FREE streaming of operas, concerts and recitals, complete with program notes and links for listening

April 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

During the COVID-19 pandemic, so much music is being streamed – through both live streaming and delayed pre-recorded streaming – that it can be hard to keep track of it all.

After all, the events are taking place locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

How do you know what operas, orchestral concerts, chamber music concerts and individual recitals will take place? Where and when they will take place? What time is it in your time zone? And where do you find links to the performances, such as those by the famed Berlin Philharmonic (below)?

Getting so much information can be daunting.

But one loyal reader has helped The Ear by sending word about the most exhaustive compilation or online guide to FREE streaming of classical music events he has seen so far.

It is done by Musical America, and The Ear highly recommends it. 

The Musical America website advises users that the guide will be updated twice weekly, and that Central European Time (CET) is six hours ahead of Eastern Daylight time (EDT) — or seven hours ahead of Central Daylight Time (CDT).

It also tells you how long many of the streamed videos are available for. A full 23 or 24 hours after the initial airing seems pretty average. But many appealing events – by some of the most prestigious organizations and individual performers in the world — will be available for the entire duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

You also get concise notes about the performers and the programs.

Today and tonight, for example, you could take in productions by the Berlin State Opera, the Zurich Opera and Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera (below) and the Vienna State Opera.

You could also take in the historical performances from the ongoing Cliburn Watch Party from the Cliburn International Piano Competition, and the twice weekly concerts by the six musically talented children in the acclaimed Kanneh-Mason family in England, now dubbed “The Von Trapp’s of classical music.” (Below is cellist brother Sheku Kanneh-Mason performing at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.)

And you could listen to award-winning cellist Alisa Weilerstein (below) will also discuss and play all 36 movements of the six solo cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach that she recently recorded and just released.

The guide lists some of the more outstanding paid websites such as Medici TV but also lists events that took place much earlier but are still available for free watching and listening.

The guide has a link so that organizations can submit their own events for listing or users can make suggestions.

In short, the Musical America guide is extremely useful. You should probably bookmark it if you are planning to listen to a lot of musical events online through streaming.

But don’t take The Ear’s word for it. Take a look and check it out for yourself.

Here is a link: https://www.musicalamerica.com/news/newsstory.cfm?storyid=44766&categoryid=1&archived=0

What do you think of it?

Do you find it useful and think you will?

Do you see any major shortcomings or overlooked events?

Recommendations of your own?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra performs its annual gala Christmas concert this weekend and also offers a FREE community carol sing this Saturday morning

December 12, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

As Charles Dickens might say, the Madison Symphony Orchestra knows how to keep Christmas well.

Over many years, “A Madison Symphony Christmas” has become a  popular and major annual kickoff to the holiday season in the Madison area by embracing the season with Christmas classics and new music.

Much of the event’s appeal derives from the diversity and range of the performers. This year it again features the full orchestra plus the Madison Symphony Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs and the Mount Zion Gospel Choir.

In addition, two opera stars who have performed with the Madison Opera — tenor Mackenzie Whitney (below top) and soprano Michelle Johnson (below bottom)– return to the stage for this annual family-friendly tradition. For biographies of the two singers, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/a-madison-symphony-christmas-2019/

MSO principal harpist Johanna Wienholts (below) is a featured soloist in a concerto by George Frideric Handel.

“A Madison Symphony Christmas” takes place in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on this Friday night, Dec. 13, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Dec. 14, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 15, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $19 to $95 with discounts available. See below for details.

NOTE: On this coming Saturday morning, Dec. 14, at 11 a.m., Greg Zelek (below, in a  photo by Peter Rodgers) — the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Organist and Curator of the Overture Concert Organ — leads a FREE Community Carol Sing in Overture Hall. All ages are welcome, and no tickets or reservations are needed. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/free-community-carol-sing-2019/

Music director and conductor John DeMain (below) offers the following preview of the MSO concert:“This is the biggest celebration of the season in Madison and beyond. It has four different choruses and choirs as well as amazing soloists from the orchestra, the world of opera and Broadway.

“The huge Madison Symphony Orchestra will play your favorite Christmas music, and there is a great carol sing-along featuring the Overture Hall organ playing with the MSO. After this concert, you’ll want to celebrate Christmas all year long.”

The program begins with classical styles in the first half, culminating in Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.) The concert climaxes with a Gospel music finale, and a chance for the audience to sing along.

Works to be performed include John Rutter’s version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”; the “Magnificat” by Johann Sebastian Bach; Franz Schubert’s “Wiegenlied” (“Lullaby”); and music by Charles Gounod, J. S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Adolphe Adam, Dan Goeller and Randol Alan Bass.

The older voices of the Madison Youth Choirs (below) are featured in works by composer Stephen Hatfield, including a version of the traditional English “Apple-Tree Wassail.”

The Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) and soloists present of medley of familiar holiday favorites, including “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

Finally, the Mount Zion Gospel Choir (below, in a photo by Bob Rashid) sings arrangements for choir and orchestra by co-director Leotha Stanley, including “The Joy of Christmas,” Stanley’s version of “Silent Night,” and a newly composed song by Stanley, “Christmas Hope.”

CONCERT, TICKET AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. The MSO recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations — and participate in singing carols with the Madison Symphony Chorus that take place in the Overture Hall lobby (below) 45 minutes before the concerts.

Program notes are available online for viewing in advance of the concerts: http://bit.ly/msodec19programnotes

  • Single Tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/a-madison-symphony-christmas-2019/through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 8-10 vouchers for 19-20 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined. 

 


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians will perform its ninth annual Baroque Holiday Concert this coming Saturday night

December 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

On this coming Saturday night, Dec. 7, the Madison Bach Musicians will present its ninth annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below, in  2014, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer).

The concert, using period instruments and historically informed performance practices, is again at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., near Camp Randall Stadium. A pre-concert lecture by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson is at 7:15 p.m. followed by the concert at 8 p.m.

Advance-sale tickets are $35 at Orange Tree Imports and the Willy St. Co-op (East and West). Online advance-sale tickets are available at https://madisonbachmusicians.org. Tickets at the door at $38 for general admission and $35 for seniors. Student Rush tickets are $10 at the door and go on sale 30 minutes before the lecture.

The program features masterworks by Bach, Handel, Purcell and Torelli which, in their appealing Baroque way, explore the fusion of celebration, reflection and ultimate renewal often felt as the year’s end approaches.

MBM welcomes baroque trumpet virtuoso Kathryn Adduci (below), who will show how wonderfully vintage brass resounds in the magnificent Old World acoustics of the church.

Other performers are: Ariadne Lih, soprano (below); Lindsey Meekhof, alto; Ryan Townsend Strand, tenor; Michael Hawes, bass; Christine Hauptly Annin and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Micah Behr, viola; James Waldo, cello; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord.

Here are a couple of fun facts, provided by Stephenson, about each piece on the program.

Sound the Trumpet, by Henry Purcell (1659−1695, below)
1. This piece was composed in 1694, the year before Purcell died at the age of just 36. It is part of a birthday ode — Come Ye Sons of Art, Away! — for Queen Mary II of England, wife of King James II.
2. There is no trumpet in it at all, but the two voices implore the trumpet to play and they emulate trumpet-style writing with long, swelling notes mixed in with brilliant decorative flourishes.


Trumpet Concert in D major 
by Giuseppe Torelli (1658−1709, below)
1. Torelli was one of the most prolific trumpet composers of all time.
2. The baroque trumpet has no valves and is designed to play in one tonality at a time. Favorite baroque keys were D major and C major.

Comfort Ye and Every Valley from Messiah, by George Frideric Handel (1685−1759, below)
1. After the instrumental Overture to Messiah, this Recitative and Aria are the work’s first sung pieces.
2. Handel was 56 years old when he composed Messiah in 1741 in London; the work was premiered, however, in Dublin in 1742, much to the chagrin of Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens.

Cantata BWV 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Exult in God in Every Land), by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685−1750, below)
1. Composed around 1730, this is one of the very few Bach cantatas requiring only one singer.
2. In Bach’s Leipzig church, where the work was probably first heard, the soloist would have been either a male falsettist (or castrato) or an exceptionally skilled boy soprano.

Contrapunctus XIX and Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before Thy throne I stand), from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, by J.S. Bach
1. According to Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE), this fugue is the last piece his father wrote — though scholars hotly contest this claim.
2. In measure 195, Bach’s own name appears suddenly as a musical motive: B (B-flat in the German scale) – A – C – H (B natural) and the fugue has no ending but simply trails off in measure 239.

Grosser Herr, o starker König (Great Lord, O Powerful King) from Christmas Oratorio,BWV 248, by J.S. Bach
1. It features dance-like melodic figures in dialogue between trumpet and solo bass voice. (Heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
2. Text celebrates the birth of the savior, which makes the powers of the Earth irrelevant.

Cantata BWV 196, Der Herr denket an uns (The Lord thinks of us),by J.S. Bach
1. With its textual focus on blessings (from Psalm 115), the work is likely a wedding cantata.
2. Written probably when Bach was only 22 years old, the work is absolutely perfect in its structure and easy concision; its high-energy but quiet final cadence has a curiously modern, neo-Classical charm that might have made Stravinsky smile.

Chorale: Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe (What joy for me that I have Jesus),from Cantata, BWV 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life)by J.S. Bach
1. The famous opening figure in the strings is really just Bach’s ingenious obligato lead-in to a chorale tune that parishioners in his church would have instantly recognized.
2. This work has enjoyed tremendous popularity as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” since it was arranged for one and then two pianos in 1926 and 1934 respectively by English pianist Myra Hess. It has since been arranged for myriad combinations of instruments and voices.


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Classical music: What happens when Shakespeare and Benjamin Britten meet Andy Warhol and The Factory? The University Opera explores a new spin on an old tale

November 12, 2019
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ALERT: At 7:30 p.m. this Thursday night, Nov. 14 — the night before it opens the opera production below — the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Oriol Sans, will perform a FREE concert in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue, next to the Chazen Museum of Art. The program offers Darius Milhaud’s “The Creation of the World,” Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 “The Clock.”  

By Jacob Stockinger

The Big Event in classical music this week in Madison is the production by the University Opera of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

It is a chance to see what happens when Shakespeare (below top) meets Britten (below bottom) through the lens of the Pop art icon Andy Warhol.

The three-hour production – with student singers and the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor Oriol Sans — will have three performances in Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill: this Friday night, Nov. 15, at 7:30; Sunday afternoon, Nov. 17, at 2 p.m.; and Tuesday night, Nov. 19, at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $25 for the general public; $20 for seniors; and $10 for students.

For more information about the production and how to obtain tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-a-midsummer-nights-dream/2019-11-15/

For more information about the performers, the alternating student cast and a pre-performance panel discussion on Sunday, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/A-Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Media-release.pdf

And here are notes by director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) about the concept behind this novel production:

“When the artistic team for A Midsummer Night’s Dream met last spring, none of us expected that we would set Britten’s opera at The Factory, Andy Warhol’s workspace-cum-playspace.

“For my part, I wanted to find a way to tell this wonderful story that would be novel, engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

“I only had one wish: that we did a production that did not feature fairies sporting wings – a representation that, to me, just seemed old-fashioned and, frankly, tired.

“As we worked on the concept, we found that The Factory setting allowed us to see the show in a new, compelling light and truly evoked its spirit and themes. The elements of this “translation” easily and happily fell into place and now, six months later, here we are!

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the intersecting stories of three groups of characters – Fairies, Lovers and Rustics – and its traditional locale is that of a forest, the domain of Oberon, the Fairy King. (You can hear the Act 1 “Welcome, Wanderer” duet with Puck and Oberon, played by countertenor David Daniels, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“In our production, the proverbial forest becomes The Factory, where our Oberon, inspired by Andy Warhol (below, in a photo from the Andy Warhol Museum), rules the roost. He oversees his world – his art, his business, and “his people.” He is part participant in his own story, as he plots to get even with Tytania, his queen and with whom he is at odds; and part voyeur-meddler, as he attempts to engineer the realignment of affections among the Lovers.

“Tytania, in our production, is loosely modeled on Warhol’s muse, Edie Sedgwick (below top), and Puck resembles Ondine (below bottom), one of the Warhol Superstars.

The Fairies become young women in the fashion or entertainment industries, regulars at The Factory; the Lovers, people who are employed there; and the Rustics, or “Rude Mechanicals,” blue-collar workers by day, who come together after hours to form an avant-garde theater troupe seeking their 15 minutes of fame.

“For all these people, The Factory (below, in a photo by Nat Finkelstein) is the center of the universe.  They all gravitate there and finally assemble for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta – in this setting, a rich art collector and his trophy girlfriend.

“Magic is an important element in Midsummer. In the realm of the fairies, Oberon makes frequent use of magical herbs and potions to achieve his objectives. In the celebrity art world of mid-1960s New York City, those translate into recreational drugs.

“The people who work in and gather at The Factory are also are involved in what could be called a type of magic – making art and surrounding themselves in it. They take photographs, create silk screen images, hang and arrange Pop art, and party at The Factory.

“Not only does this world of creative magic provide us with a beautiful way to tell the story of Midsummer, but it also becomes a metaphor for the “theatrical magic” created by Shakespeare and Britten, and integral to every production.

“We hope you enjoy taking this journey with us, seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in perhaps a new way that will entertain and delight your senses and, perhaps, challenge your brain a bit.”

 


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Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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